The Steelers 2010 Defensive Line was not the youngest group in the world but they were stellar all year long. In 2009 when they were without Aaron Smith (and Polamalu who also is big in run support) for most of the year, and they struggled at times. They still finished in the top 10 in run defense but it was evident that teams knew they could test the Steelers run defense and have some success. In a zone blitz scheme, the DL is asked to do one thing primarily and that is to stop the run at all costs. It’s a thankless job and without many accolades, but players know this going in and buy into the scheme whole heartedly. Bill Cowher helped build this line, all 3 starters were drafted under his tenure. They have held up quite well over the years and annually are one of the best in the league. Age though is starting to become a factor, or will be in the very near future so some offseason help here would be ideal.
Aaron Smith: Smith, when healthy, is the best 34 Defensive End in the league and is as unsung a hero as you’ll find in the game today. Dick Lebeau calls him one of the best ever and nearly unblockable. Smith is an extremely intelligent player and can break down a blocking scheme usually before the ball is snapped. He can adjust on the fly to make sure that his gap is sealed and often occupies 2 blockers to contain him. He may not get the sacks or all the tackles but make no mistake, a big reason the Steelers have been so good is because Smith is in there. Aaron will be entering his 13th year in the NFL in 2011, missing much of the last 2 years with a arm injuries. It remains to be seen how many more years Smith has left, but fortunately for the Steelers, Their 2009 first round draft pick Ziggy Hood has really started to come into his own
Ziggy Hood: Speaking of “the hood”, Ziggy took on a much bigger role in the defense in 2010. With the absence of Smith, it was paramount that Hood step up and be counted on to help an aging line stay competitive. In training camp he showed signs that he was ready to take the next step but when Smith went down it was a bit rough early on. Hood seemed to disappear, routinely getting handled by the opposing blockers. Still though the Steeler defense vs the run continued to lead the NFL. A testament to Coach Lebeau and the rest of the defense. By the mid point of the season Ziggy began to find himself in the backfield more reguarly and was becoming the force the Steelers had envisioned for him. Hood finished the year with 20 Tackles and 3 sacks. Teams continued to test Hood in the postseason but he responded and held his position, being instrumental in both the run defense and pass rush. The future is bright for Hood and the Steelers at this position.
Brett Keisel: Grizzly Adams, Mountain Man, The Beard, you name it, all nicknames that describe Keisel. Brett missed 3 games in the middle of the year with a hamstring injury, leaving the defense very shorthanded with Smith already out. They responded though continuing to be a top unit overall. He is also one of the more underrated players in the league and more than capable of stopping the run and getting pressure on the Quarterback. Finishing the year with 33 Tackles, 3 Sacks, 2 Forced Fumbles, and 1 Interception, Keisel has been a fan favorite and a nightmare for opposing offensive lines. His 6’5″ 285lb frame combined with his unique athletisicm makes him difficult to block. Keisel will be entering his 10th season in 2011 and is showing no signs of slowing down.
Casey Hampton: The big snack has been the rock that anchors the Steelers defensive line for the last 10 years. At 6’1″, 325 lbs. Hampton is as strong as he is big and routinely occupies more than 1 blocker. The NT in a 34 defense is called upon to clog up the middle of the line, holding his blockers so the runner has to bounce the play outside; right into the arms of a waiting linebacker or DE. It’s a thankless job but one that Hampton has done well in his entire career. The Steelers need to consider drafting a bigtime replacement for Hampton within the next couple of years at the latest. Casey still has a few good years left in him at this point but if the Steelers were to win a 7th ring in 2011 or 2012 he’d probably consider hanging it up. The 34 defense doesn’t work without a pro bowl caliber Nose Tackle and Hampton has delivered and then some.
Chris Hoke & Nick Eason: Both reserve players saw a lot of action in 2010. With injuries to Aaron Smith and Brett Keisel, Eason was called upon to play an active role at defensive end. He is a viable backup and knows Lebeau’s defense. He is a free agent though, and the Steelers have some decisions to make. He would most likely return for a very cap friendly deal if the Steelers want him.
Hoke has spent his career with the Steelers in the role of Hampton’s backup. When called upon he is more than capable of stepping in and holding his own; the Steelers are fortunate to have Hoke around. Hampton’s size doesn’t allow him to play every snap so having a backup like Hoke in the rotation helps keep both players fresh late in the game.
Overall, this unit may be showing their age on the roster but on the field they are still as capable as ever. Still though, the Steelers need to infuse this group with a few more capable bodies to ensure their continued success looking to the future. Bringing in Hood was a great move by the front office in 2009, bringing in another such player in the 2011 draft would be a smart move.